Thursday, March 19, 2009
Oh Yeah, I Can Dig It
I had never actually seen Shaft before last night, but somehow I was familiar with many elements of the film. With a movie that culturally iconic, it's a bit hard to not recognize the jive beat, smooth voiceovers, and oh-so-seventies dialogue as being from Shaft. However, I had never perceived Shaft as much more than a blaxploitation action movie (which is probably why I hadn't seen it) that was cool in the same way as Rocky or Die Hard. While in a way Shaft kind of fulfilled my expectations in that respect, it was also a pretty potent commentary on how views on race relations were changing in a major way in the 1970s.
If I had to use one word to describe the character of John Shaft, it would be dominating. Now, don't read me wrong, I don't mean dominating in a domineering sense. Shaft is clearly the guy in charge, from the opening sequence as he walks across a busy New York street like he owns the town to the very end when he delivers the last word to the Lieutenant Androzzi. Shaft is completely in control of every situation that he enters into, regardless of who he happens to be dealing with. He deals on his own terms and no one else's, be it with the white mafia or one of his many ladies. He maintains this attitude with everyone in the movie, though different facets of his personality tend to show when he is dealing with different people.
I noticed that the way Shaft treated people had very little to do with color, and much more to do with status. Shaft has a paradoxically irreverent working respect for the white police lieutenant, an equal distaste for the Italian mafia and black crime boss Bumpy Jonas, and a gentle kind manner with all of the regular people on the street that he appears to know regardless of color. Shaft's ability to be in complete control of every human encounter says a lot about how race relations had changed since the 1950s and 1960s. Racism was still very evident in several scenes, but it was made very clear that Shaft (or any other black person in the movie) was not going to take anyone's crap. This is the very reason that Shaft is such a culturally significant film. For the first time, there was a black action hero who projected pride and power to an audience of all races. Shaft not only contributed to the movement that forever changed the African American role in Hollywood, but it changed the way America viewed minorities and their cool. That, my friends, is something I can dig.